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Flawed But Nonetheless Very Rewarding Comedy
Mumford is not a great film, but it is a film full of great moments and delicious characters. I worked on the trailer for this film, and saw it all the way through at least five times, and saw the trailer editor's select-reel over twenty times. I saw many scenes hundreds of times, because the studio made us cut over 40 versions of the trailer, and then we made about a half-dozen TV spots. Unlike most movies that start to get very tired after a few viewings, Mumford just kept giving up more secrets and revealing more little gem-like moments every time I watched it.
It's about a young psycho-therapist named Mumford who moves into a small Pacific Northwest town called Mumford. He begins to help a lot of people with their problems, and disrupts the nice, comfortable business of the town's two existing therapists. But Mumford has a secret, and the potential revelation of his secret drives the rather thin, low-key plot.
The movie isn't really about the plot. The plot follows an unusual trajectory, timed very differently than other movies with a similar secret at their heart, and ultimately has trouble finding a satisfying ending. It isn't so much about Dr. Mumford himself, either, who is scripted very low-key and given a rather weak performance by Loren Dean (which is the film's other main problem). This combination of weaknesses makes Mumford different from a lot of formula films, and at the end, you feel a little unresolved.
But on the other hand, it's hugely enjoyable all the way through. Why? Because it's really about the people Mumford meets and the transformations he inspires in them. Among the stand-outs are Zoe Deschanel, who steals the movie with her adorable debut performance as a disaffected teen forced to attend therapy after a drug bust; Jason Lee as an insecure skateboarding software billionaire; Hope Davis as a psychosomatically fatigued daughter of an overbearing mother; Ted Danson in a hilarious one-scene role as a rich schmuck; Mary MacDonnell in a kind of trance-state as his mail-order shopping-obsessed wife; the wonderful David Paymer as the town's leading psycho-therapist who affects red cowboy boots; Jane Adams as his rather mousy colleague and lover; and Pruitt Taylor Vince is delightful as a man with an exceptionally rich fantasy life.
This movie confused the Disney marketing department, who desperately wanted to make it into a teen comedy. (It isn't.) It was ultimately dumped onto the market with only one TV spot which did not run much, because the studio had no faith in it. Nobody saw it, which is a real pity.
In the trailer business, where you see and become intimately familiar with dozens of movies every year, I tended to divide movies into three categories: 1) Movies worth paying to see, 2) movies worth seeing for free, and 3) movies not worth watching under any circumstances because they're just an unrewarding theft of your time. Mumford falls into Category 1 for me.
A peculiar landmark
Anastasia was a sort of landmark picture, in its own ironic way. It was a production that showed you what animation really could be, and simultaneous;y demonstrated why it probably wouldn't happen in the foreseeable future. The story of Anastasia (as it was laid out in the 1950's play) is made beautifully, brilliantly, thrillingly. Grafted onto it, in an all-too-obvious and sadly misguided commercial strategy, is the bizarre subplot of the supervillain Rasputin and his sidekick, the albino bat Bartok. The movie-studio logic that instigated this bit of narrative frankensteining is patently obvious:
animation means child audience children need good and evil to root for Evil needs a sidekick to talk about his evilness with Merchandising needs a character to sell to the boys (Bartok) or it'll just be a girl-flick and we'll lose half the money.
Alas. Movie studios have to chasae a buck, they need it to keep making movies. Sometimes, they do it intelligently and great film-making results. This is the other way they pursue it, studio logic at its most craven and cowardly. The entire Rasputin-Bartok aspect of the movie is godawful. The notion that Bartok might somehow be appealing is appalling. The integration of the two aspects of the movie is virtually non-existent. Large animation projects are generally executed by several different teams working concurrently, and integrating the the different segments with some stylistic consistency is part of the art of the supervising team. It is utterly absent here. In a way, that's a good thing, because it keeps the "bad movie" from tainting the "good movie."
But the message is all too clear: "we can't just make a good drama or romance in animated form, because we can't trust anyone over the age of 9 to come to an animated film. So if it's animation, we have to pander to children." And in their eagerness to pander, they made the supposedly kid-friendly part of the film so bad it's insulting to any audience of any age.
Which is a real pity, because the Anastasia story, the real one, is an excellent movie that advanced the art of animated narrative.
Cry Dr. Chicago (1971)
A magnetic experience in seeing, if you have patience
This work comes out of the era when people were starting to distinguish between "movies" and "films," and Dr. Chicago is not a movie. I saw it in Phill Niblock's SoHo loft around 1976, as the centerpiece of an evening of avant garde films. (Other filmmakers represented included Bruce Conner and Ken Jacobs, to give you some context.) I could not say what it's 'about' in a narrative sense. I'm not sure I ever knew. I have a vague recollection that the title character, Dr. Chicago, is an abortionist on the run (but this may be entirely mistaken.) What I believed it to be about at the time - and I still believe that - is "seeing." More than almost any other film I can think of, the images are the content. It is a quality shared somewhat with the works of Andrei Tarkovsky, but Manupelli goes much farther with it than Tarkovsky usually did.
(I note that George Manupelli is listed as writer and cinematographer, and that no director is listed. At the time I saw it, it was clearly presented as the work of George Manupelli, that he was the filmmaker.) The film is composed of very long takes, many of them probably full 10 minute camera reels. The camera is static through most of the film. I do not remember any cutting within a scene, which is to say, each take was a scene and vice versa.
Many of the images were highly layered. I remember one in particular where the title character, Dr. Chicago, sat in a semi-darkened room talking to a woman who was lying on a bed. He was seen in profile through a screen door. The late afternoon light on the screen rendered him half visible, the woman almost invisible. He talked in a low, rhythmic voice. The scene was hypnotic. After a while of looking at it, the screen seemed to undulate and produce weird light patterns. The longer you looked, the more you saw. That's another thing Manupelli shares with Tarkovsky: the work requires great patience on the part of the viewer, and a willingness to keep looking and let the images wash over the eye and accumulate an effect.
It is worth noting that the character Dr. Chicago is played by Alvin Lucier, a renowned New Music composer and theorist. Alvin was a student and friend of John Cage, and has been a professor of Music at Wesleyan University for decades, where he has trained an entire generation of composers.
I don't know if it possible to see Cry Dr. Chicago anywhere anymore. In it's time, it was part of the category called Underground Films. (That name has been applied to a very different sort of film recently.) If there is still an audience for these films, I think it has probably gone underground.
It is a stunning work in its way, composed of motion photographs and, as I remember, very sparing sound. I would not call it minimalist, because the images were often complex. By its reduction of sensory inputs to a few elements, it achieves one of the properties that I personally believe is common to all great art: experiencing it teaches you about how your senses work.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
A Wonderful and Terrible Movie
I have seen this picture many times, including in its original release (when I was 4 years old) but perhaps the most revealing viewing was in the large theater on the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood. The setting influenced me to look at it not merely as a story, but as a "production," and seen in that light, I was able to understand the conflicts I've always sensed about this film.
DeMille was a brilliant producer. He could bring together the film-making elements with a completeness and vision that few could match. He was also a talented visual story-teller. He was also, when this film was made, probably the longest-practicing director in the business, rivaled only (perhaps) by King Vidor. He was the definition of Old School.
The film is the most curious amalgam of genuine religious belief and genuine showmanship. He knew the message, and he knew how to get people's attention. He brought the two goals together with the simple arithmetic that is the basis of Hollywood business, and is often the undermining of cinematic chemistry and the undoing of Hollywood art.
It must be stated that this film contains a few bits of the most outrageously ridiculous dialogue ever filmed. There is something inherently inappropriate about addressing the giver of the founding laws of Western civilization with the words: "Moses, you adorable fool, kiss me."
It must also be stated that this film is one of the most awesome and successful acts of film production ever brought off. That was what I realized while watching it within the gates of the Paramount lot. There's a scene where Moses, in his Architect phase, is in his architectural office having a discussion with Nefirtiri. While the two of them work through their frustrated passion, one might notice that in the background, seen through a window, about a half-mile away, 3000 extras are building pyramid. Nobody else made movies quite like DeMille.
DeMille keeps this film visually riveting throughout, and it keeps getting better as it goes along. As a visualization of the great biblical story, this is about as good as it gets. If you saw it without being able to understand the dialogue, it would still be enthralling.
What ultimately almost wrecks the drama of the film is not the profane ridiculousness of the dialogue or the sexy love-story that seems sacrilegiously embroidered into a holy tale. It is, rather, the genuine piety of the film-maker.
The first part of the movie, the story of Moses' search for his real identity and the true meaning of his life, is a great drama. It is well-structured, well acted, and dressed with an inimitable production to give it a sense of reality and greatness. Then, Moses goes up the mountain, listens to the Burning Bush, and comes down gray-haired and radiating divine light.
From this point on, Moses has become too holy to suffer any dramatic conflict. As a result, Drama flees from him as though he had some terrifying disease. The movie loses its dramatic center, in the personal sense. The "drama" of the Hebrews escape to freedom and their testing and travails is all there, to be sure, but the personal level of drama, which drove the first half of the film, no longer has its central character.
The Drama searches for another center to hold onto, but it never really finds one. Pharaoh Rameses makes a good try (and Yul Brynner certainly steals the movie in terms of his performance), but he's not allowed to succeed in becoming the dramatic center because he's the villain. Dathan (Edward G. Robinson almost steals the movie, and would have succeeded if he'd had a larger part) takes a shot at being a dramatic center, but he's not allowed to because he's a secondary villain.
As a result, the terms of the film shift completely. The personal drama set against an epic background becomes an Epic without a personality. (And here I use "epic" in its true definition, the story of an entire people.)
In all, I still think it's a film not to be missed, especially if there's an opportunity to see it on a real movie theater screen. Despite its problems, it's a fabulous experience.
Movers & Shakers (1985)
funny, inside look at how the movie studios operate (possible spoilers)
This movie is a startlingly good look at the kinds of internal politics that drive the movie business. It's occasionally very funny, sometimes not nearly as funny as you'd like. It's always pretty dry humor. But the truth that this picture has to tell is pretty dead on. There is a scene of a script conference that is a deadly accurate portrayal of the kind of meeting where the participants hype themselves into thinking they've actually decided something, but there is no content. It also has one of the best scenes about non-communication in a relationship that I've ever seen. While the movie is far from perfect, it is filled with gemlike moments, and well worth seeing.
Flying Tigers (1942)
A shameless rip-off
This movie ought to have a good plot; it's shamelessly "borrowed" from the Jules Furthman/Howard Hawks 1939 classic ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. What FLYING TIGERS lacks is any of ANGELS' snap or character chemistry. Everybody's performance feels a bit empty and wooden. Even Wayne seems to be doing the part more from memory than really feeling it. The plot holds up, for what it's worth, but the movie seems to be trying to wring some cheap emotionalism out of it, as though nobody can really get into the skin of this thing and make it real. If you can't tell the difference between real grass and Astroturf, you might like this movie a lot.
The Fountainhead (1949)
Amazingly bad movie by very talented people
It's not surprising that Warner Bros was tempted by a big best-seller, but it's amazing that a bunch of film professionals like WB, King Vidor et al ever let this screenplay get filmed as it was written. Ayn Rand had obviously never been to a movie, or had complete contempt for movies and their audiences, because she had no concept of what dialogue does in a drama, or what it needs to sound like to be effective. She thinks that descriptive prose can be shoved into actors' mouths and that makes it dialogue. This is probably one of the most literate screenplays of the 40's, but it is incredibly awful nonetheless.
It is a testament to Gary Cooper's great abilities as an actor that he actually manages to make this stuff sound like a human being might speak it. None of the other actors achieves this feat, although Patricia Neal sporadically approaches it. If you focus on Cooper, you might be seduced into thinking this is a movie. If you listen to the other characters, you realize that it's a diatribe being read - rather stiltedly in most cases - by some fairly talented but hopelessly overwhelmed actors.
Ayn Rand's celebration of the ego reaches a zenith in writing the screenplay from her own book. The screenplay also demonstrates the big hole in her argument: just because you've got an ego doesn't mean you've got talent. Like the architect Roark, she wanted to keep possession of her ideas. So she designed the script from her novel. Unlike Roark, she was able to see that the ideas were expressed her way. In doing so, she destroyed whatever value this movie might have had in more competent hands.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Taking a 47th Look at a classic
This is undeniably an excellent movie, a fun movie, and one of my personal favorites. But taking my umpteen-and-fourth look at it, I came to a few realizations. What they amount to is that Huston's directorial debut was not as sure-footed as is generally thought. There are several very strangely edited scenes that suggest the editor needed to re-work the storytelling considerably in several places.
Spade's second scene with Iva Archer clearly has a big piece hacked out of it. The scene is just getting worked up to something when there's a bad cut, and Spade tells Iva to go home. It revolves around the question of where Iva was at the time her husband was murdered, but the way it's cut, the question is brought up and then dropped rather unceremoniously. My assumption is that the scene was a red herring about whether or not she might have killed him, and it was later deemed unnecessary.
Simiarly, the scene when they examine the Falcon has one cut to a very peculiar angle of Gutman, the only time this angle appears in the scene. Since every other angle is used two or three times at least, it suggests that there was a big chunk cut out here, where Gutman talks to Cairo about whether or not they should undertake the quest to Istanbul. Immediately after this cut, Cairo is suddenly on his feet and his attitude has changed significantly.
Also in this scene, Gutman has two short but key lines that are clearly dubbed after the fact, and probably not even by Sidney Greenstreet himself - the voice sounds like anoher actor. While I don't want to reveal the lines because they involve a spoiler, it's obvious that the story was not clear enough as shot. There's also a shot that appears to be a single frame step-printed to create a short shot that didn't exist in the footage.
Finally, Spade's last big scene with Bridgit O'Shaugnessy is kind of rambling and, if examined closely, has a minor continuity break. It feels like this scene has been re-arranged, that the different beats of it came in another order, or perhaps they are two different versions of the scene cut together. Of course, this is a long scene, ant it may simply be that the pieces of it, shot on different days, weren't matched very well in terms of angles and lighting.
I'm not suggesting that this kind of editing was anything unusual. I daresay that an examination of another Hollywood picture of the era, if done with the same level of scrutiny, would turn up just as much editorial reworking. But the "classic" status of the FALCON makes these small discoveries very interesting.
I would add that this movie was probably made very quickly, which would easily account for small mistakes and reconsiderations that needed to be made in the cutting room. I say this because, from a production point of view, it was clearly a lower-budget film that the studio ground out. The director - John Huston, was a screenwriter who got the to direct by offering to script it for free. None of the cast were major stars when the film was made. Bogart had only made one film of any significance in which he had the lead - High Sierra - made the same year. Mary Astor's star had peaked years before and was already waning. It was Sidney Greenstreet's screen debut. Peter Lorre was best known (in the US) for his series of MR. MOTO programmers, all relatively low-budget affairs. There are only two or three large sets used in the entire film - the usual street set, the lobby of the Hotel Belvedere, and the docks where the La Paloma is burning. Everything else is shot in offices, apartments and lobbies. They're probably all standing sets easily re-dressed for different films. There are no action sequences; I think there's only one stunt-man in the film, where Miles Archer is shot and rolls down the embankment. There are no car chases; I'm not sure if there's even a shot of a car in motion. It's mostly people talking and giving each other looks. In other words, it was cheap, and lower-budget films were usually shot on a tight schedule, perhaps four weeks.
What makes it a great film is lively performances, deep directorial insight into the characters, intense camera angles, and a well-conceived plot that keeps you interested. (BTW, most of the dialogue comes directly from Dashiell Hammett's novel. The art of writing this screenplay was choosing which pieces to use.) What makes it fascinating is that none of the characters is easy to define. They are all untrustworthy, all hard to read, all concealing their true natures.
It's probably worth an umpteen-and-fifth look.
Stranger on the Third Floor (1940)
A B-Movie that transcends its lowly production status
This is a classic B (not a quality-judgment, but a well-defined production level that existed before the legal consent-decree that ended studio ownership of movie theaters in the early 1950's. B-movies were lower-budget features, between 55 and 70 minutes, using second tier talent - rising actors or ex-stars on their way down - designed to play the bottom half of a double-feature with an A-picture. The studios needed to produce a certain number of these pictures to keep their theaters supplied, and the quality was only of second importance.) Very often, the low budget gave the filmmakers a certain freedom, because the studio wouldn't keep very tight control on a production of such relative unimportance. B- movies sometimes served as the canvases for highly innovative directors and photographers. (Note that the talent behind the camera includes both the (uncredited) work on the script by no less than Nathaniel West, author of DAY OF THE LOCUST, and cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, who went on to shoot such atmospheric classics as CAT PEOPLE, CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE, OUT OF THE PAST, and the vastly under-appreciated psychological thriller THE LOCKET.)
The late William K. Everson, a fanatical private film collector and one of the greatest film historians, used to show this picture in his B-movie class at NYU as an example of "Films made on one set." The one set in this case is the street scene, although the staircase of the apartment building is also prominently featured. The street was, of course, a standing set that appeared in many films. But if you watch the film carefully, you'll realize that many of the other settings are hardly more than lighting effects on a bare sound-stage. The so- called "surrealism" of the film is a triumph of turning low-budget necessity into an effective style.
As to the claim that it's the first film noir, that's pretty questionable. Film noir really was born in France in the late 30's (there's a reason why the term is French). "Le Jour Se Leve" is probably the best-known example. It was characterized by the dark settings as well as the dark pessimism of its mood, using shadows to separate people, and to fragment the image of the individual. This is certainly an early American film noir, once again because of the spareness of budget forced the use of shadows to hide the lack sets.
This is a very enjoyable, effective thriller, taking us from a rather mundane, plausible reality into a wild nightmare. Lorre's brief appearances become the engine of the fears, that frightening presence you expect to find in every shadow.
The Bat Whispers (1930)
Masterful cinema in the Old Dark House genre
Roland West's THE BAT WHISPERS was based on a hugely successful Broadway play, The Bat, widely credited for having created the vogue for thriller plays in the 1920's. (The 1927 production "Dracula" which starred Bela Lugosi on stage was part of the mystery vogue, and led directly to the 1930 Universal film which kicked off the 30's cycle of horror movies). West filmed The Bat in 1926 as a silent, with great success. The 1930 remake was a large production, shot simultaneously in standard 35mm and a new widescreen 65mm process. Theater owners largely rejected the expense of installing 65mm equipment, and most people who saw this film on its release saw the 35mm version.
Among them was Bob Kane, who credited it as a major influence in his creation of Batman in the late 30's. It's easy to see why. This is a stunning looking film (I'm referring to the 35mm version, which I saw at the 2004 UCLA Festival of Preservation) gorgeously photographed by Ray June. In an old dark house where the lights are constantly going off, and lighting is frequently provided by candles, or lightning, bizarre lighting effects start to become the norm, and the dramatic possibilities take off. The director used every conceivable angle to keep things visually lively, mirroring the ridiculous complexity of the plot with a visual complexity that always keeps the viewer slightly off balance.
Much has been made of the sweeping camera moves and the use of miniatures. The miniatures are a bit obvious, but their intent remains effective if you're willing to go with it. (Being willing to "go with it" is pretty much a necessity in general for this film, which was a wild and unrealistic ride in its time, and deliberately so.) The photography benefits from a number of technical innovations, including a lightweight camera dolly invented for this production that allowed the camera to be moved 18 feet vertically in a matter of moments.
The performances - both comic and dramatic characters - are deliberately hokey, very stagey turns that were the standard for this genre. Much of Chester Morris' mugging and squinting, however, are attributable to the violently bright underlighting that was used in his closeups, which eventually scorched his retinas (a condition which became known as Klieg Eye). Within that context, they are wonderful performances. Morris is particularly engaging, as is Grayce Hampton as the patrician Cornelia Van Gorder, the middle-aged spinster who refuses to be scared out of the house. (Hampton appears to be a very capable stage actress, and offers perhaps the most natural performance in the film. She had made one previous film in 1916 and made numerous subsequent ones, usually in bit parts, until she was nearly 80.) Her no-nonsense dowager centers the film perfectly, keeping the other characters (and performances) from plunging completely off the deep end.
The plot? A master criminal, The Bat, is on the loose, a half-million dollars have been stolen from a bank by somebody else, and The Bat is trying to get it. The money has apparently been brought to a lonely mansion in a rural town (apparently somewhere on then-rural Long Island) where a middle-aged woman and her made are renting for the summer. Someone is trying to scare her out of the house, so she has sent for detectives. From there, anything goes.
Innovative and Stunning
This production was performed Live on the Omnibus TV series, which was the fore-runner to much of what PBS has become. The actors were directed by Peter Brook in 3 whirlwind weeks, and it features incidental music by Virgil Thompson... an impressive array of talent. It centers on a bravura performance by Welles in the title role, although Alan Badel also shines as the Fool.
Shot on a circular, 6-segment set with 2 cameras that traveled around the perimeter, it required innovative camera-work, especially at the end of scenes, where one camera had to sneak off to the next set to begin the following scene. The lighting is very contrasty and daring, sometimes even flaring the camera (unheard of for TV lighting). The confrontation between Lear and his two wicked daughters, for instance, is handled on one camera, very tight on Lear framed by the profiles of the daughters. The camera moves inches to the left or right, deftly shifting the dramatic axis of the scene moment by moment.
The production manager told me that during rehearsals, the prop man approached him in an agitated state, saying, "I just talked to Orson. For the mad scene, he wants a crown of thorns. Like Christ's... only bigger."
The Time of Your Life (1948)
A peculiar, not very linear, but very interesting movie
A play by William Saroyan, brought to the screen apparently through the strong will of James Cagney. Some might call this a "vanity project" but it reminds me more of Barry Levinson's wonderful "AVALON" an expenditure of Hollywood clout to make a movie of seriousness and quality that is not obvious commercial material, but expresses something close to the filmmaker's heart. (Levinson had just made an enormous hit with RAINMAN, and could probably have made any movie he wanted. He spent that clout to make AVALON, a memoir of his obviously beloved grandfather.)
The Cagneys (James and his brother William) recruited a very unusual cast: a number of the significant characters are played by actors who never or hardly ever appeared in another movie.
The material, based on a major 1939 Broadway play, floats along like the drifting thoughts of a person with a mild fever - not the hallucination of a high fever, just a mild enough fever to prevent the film from being driven by a plot. Plot is incidental here, barely even trying to be an excuse for the observance of life. Life has events, but it's rarely plotted, and usually it's the fact of drama being plotted that distinguishes it from ordinary life. But Saroyan was supremely interested in the nobility of un-extraordinary people.
The liberalism (and I mean the word - at least loosely, in its political sense) of this movie is notable. Cagney was one of Hollywood's outstanding liberals - so much so that he was accused of being a Communist sympathizer in the early 40's - a charge he answered by making YANKEE DOODLE DANDY. The fact that he chose to make this film in the wake of the 1947 rise of the House Un-American Activities Committee is to his everlasting credit.
Strangler of the Swamp (1946)
A Study in Atmosphere
Although I have not seen this film for many years, I remember it's rich atmosphere quite well. I saw it in a class taught by an eminent film historian and collector, the late William K. Everson, who showed it as an example of movies made with only one set.
It's also got a richer-than-usual part for Charles Middleton, a character-actor (mostly remembered as Ming the Merciless in FLASH GORDON) with a wonderful presence.
Hell's Hinges (1916)
Extraordinarily powerful in its simple way
The story is dead simple: a tough guy is redeemed by love and becomes a defender of good over evil. The fact that it is told just as simply as it's constructed gives it a lot of power, though. The saloon-owner and the tough hombre both want to keep law and religion out of town, for different reasons. The saloon keeper sees it as a threat to his trade. The cowboy sees it as a curtailment of personal freedom. One look at the new preacher's sister changes his life: is it her beauty or her purity that strikes him to the core? In W.S. Hart's cosmos, they are the same thing. Whereas most great westerns are about the control of land, about advancing through physical spaces (and that's why they're such excellent visual subject matter) this one is really about the control of spiritual territory. The physical town will be conquered by the church-group only if it conquers the spiritual realm.
William S. Hart, who had considerable experience as a stage actor, including the performance of a good deal of Shakespeare, clearly understood that in the movies, acting and personal presence were inseparable. His acting is incredibly restrained, and he lets the contours of his face speak volumes. He makes a few very stylized gestures, but mostly relies on his personal presence, which is considerable. He is much more animated early in the film, before his conversion. Once he is won over by the message of the church, he never cracks a smile, barely moves his face at all unless he's really angry.
The entire film is as straightforward and unvarnished as Hart himself. The town is a spare group of unpainted wood buildings in barren wasteland. The Villain wants to run things, and he'll do whatever it takes with no subtrefuge necessary. The saloon girls are blatantly prostitutes. The church-goers are women and older men; all the young men are hell-raisers. The hero's prayer is, in essence, "God, if you really answer prayers, then what I want is the girl." It all sounds incredibly corny, but it rings so true when you watch it, it's hard not to feel a thrill.
L'assassinat du Père Noël (1941)
A Rare, remarkable, and controversial film from occupied France
This was the first film that the Nazis allowed to be made in France after the occupation and installation of the Vichy government. Many denounced its director as a collaborator because he made a film sanctioned by the Nazis. But to the discerning eye, this unusual film does anything but cooperate with the enemy.
In its fairy-tale setting, the various characters appear as symbols in a constantly shifting allegory of good and evil. The literal-minded Nazi censors apparently didn't get the message, because any particular character might appear in one scene as a symbol of the collaborators, and in the next as a loyalist and supporter of resistance. Even as the symbolic alignments shifted too rapidly for the Nazis to detect them (much the way resistance fighters themselves often had to) the message of hope and patriotism and faith remained quite clear.
The story concerns an old globe-maker who is mysteriously killed while going through the town portraying Pere Noel ("Father Christmas" aka Santa Claus). The unraveling of the mystery is entwined with a love story concerning an aloof nobleman who might be a scoundrel, or might be Prince Charming. But the story is little more than a pretext for the message and the pervasive sense of magic that the film weaves.;
Of special note is the performance of Harry Baur, the famous Yiddish actor, as the Globemaker. His subtly Jewish Santa Claus is, in and of itself, a bold act of resistance. This was the next to last film Baur made. He was soon taken prison by the Nazis and reportedly died at the hands of the Gestapo.
I saw this film in 1980 when the Cinematheque Francaise sent a huge program of films to Los Angeles in collaboration with UCLA and The L.A. County Museum of Art. I do not know of it being shown in this country since. I have heard of an untranslated VHS of it being in existence, but I have been unable to find it. Do not miss this film if you are afforded a chance to see it.
A bit of information about this important TV Series
In 1952, the Ford Foundation created two funds for educational television. One was for publicly supported TV, and it evolved into the modern PBS. The other was for commercial educational TV, and its chief product was the Omnibus TV series.
Omnibus broadcast, initially, live from New York City at 4:00 PM on Sundays. It was hosted by Alistair Cooke (his first show in the US) and it featured a broad range of programming about science, the arts and the humanities. Virtually anyone of cultural interest who passed through New York might end up on the show. Film segments were integrated between live performances.
Among the show's regular contributors were William Saroyan, who offered up numerous one-act plays and a six-part autobiographical work, and Cyril Ritchard and Helen Hayes, two of the Broadway theater's brightest lights, who appeared in a series of one-act plays together.
Some of Omnibus' landmark shows include:
"King Lear" starring Orson Welles, directed by Peter Brooke
Leonard Bernstein's first TV appearance, where he explained the structure of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, with the orchestral score drawn on the studio floor so that the different instrumentalists could walk along it to visually show their contribution to the overall sound.
"The Moor's Pavanne," a rare (possibly unique?) record of Dancer/Choreographer Jose Limon in performance, featuring his ballet adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello
A Portrait of Grand Central Station, a fabulous live broadcast from the great temple of railroads, ending with Alistair Cook broadcasting via mobile transmitter from the engineer's cab of the 20th Century Limited as it headed for Chicago.
Robert Flaherty's film, "The Louisiana Story"
Omnibus was a cultural treasure trove. It is preserved on kinescope and videotape. I believe much of it can be seen at The Museum of Television and Radio (New York and Los Angeles). There is also a research collection at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
Clash by Night (1952)
An interesting picture with a strong underlying sense of menace
Clearly made as a "women's picture", it is not a great movie, but it has some fine performances. The dialog varies from strong to slightly self-conscious. But what's interesting about this film is the persistent, underlying sense of menace. The triangle situation is familiar, and perhaps the presence of Stanwyck and Robert Ryan make one suspect that something deadly is going to happen. But because of the intended audience, the bulk of the violence is emotional, psychological violence. I think it is director Lang's touch that makes this stuff so scary. It's hard to shake the fear that the consequences will finally come any moment, and that they will be fatal, final.
Wonderful evocations of the Pooh world, closely based on the originals
This film is actually comprised of three earlier featurettes ("Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree", "Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day", "Winnie the Pooh and Tigger, Too"), the first three of the four Disney efforts at filming the world of Winnie The Pooh which (the fourth was "A Day for Eyeore") that were closely based on specific A.A. Milne stories, and were excellently done. Despite not being drawn the way E. H. Sheppard originally illustrated them (which is, perhaps a loss), the characters are played with great respect for the way they were written. They have been Americanized in their speech, and they don't rely so much on the British comedy of manners that Milne mined so successfully, but they are quite solidly the same "people" they were in the books. Sterling Holloway is a marvelous Pooh whose his furry voice seems to convey both his outer softness and his mental fuzziness. Paul Winchell's Tigger is probably an improvement of the original, simply because words alone could never really convey Tigger's manic exuberance the way Winchell's performance does. Ralph Wright's Eyeore is a delight, and the other characters hold their own and uphold their tradition completely.
The one completely un-Milne touch that has been added seems to me entirely acceptable, too. This is the occasional presence, in the story, of the Narrator, whose intervention helps move the characters through some of the more difficult moments. It is a touch of gentleness that is not cloying at all, and is occasionally rather witty.
These stories are genuinely wholesome without being sticky. If you want to feed your kids entertainment that's truly funny, has decent human values, is completely free of potty jokes, and will stand up for 6-year-olds yet won't scare three-year-olds, it doesn't get much better than this.
Thieves Like Us (1974)
A fine film from Altman's early period
You can look at Altman's films from 1969 into the mid-70's as being dominated by his own revision of American history. This is one of that group, and one of his better films. (MASH, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Buffalo Bill are some of the others, and all fascinating.)
While this story, on the surface, is about a group of outlaws in the 1930's, the underlying theme is unexpected. It's about people's images of themselves, and how they differ from the way others see them. Check out all the mirrors in this film. We see people through mirrors a lot, and see them clearly, but whenever a character looks at him/herself in a mirror, it's a distorting mirror.
There is a lot of layering of ideas in this film, and the performances are superb.
The Long Goodbye (1973)
A Brilliant Movie in unexpected ways
People think of Film Noir and Raymond Chandler together, but make no mistake, Altman's The Long Goodbye is NOT Film Noir. You can't really do Film Noir in color, because the genre is all about things (places, people, loyalties, good & evil) being divided up by hard shadows, and color film has no real hard shadows because the color dyes are transparent.
But where Chandler's Marlowe was the last good man in a corrupt world, Altman's Marlowe is the last sane man in an insane world. That is the translation from the 1940's to the 1970's. And instead of shadows dividing good from evil, Altman has made a film full of sliding, dissolving images and harsh white burn-outs, dissolving the line between sanity and insanity. Instead of Film Noir, it's Film Blanche. The height of this is Sterling Hayden's death scene, which we see through a succession of POV shots and reflections in plate glass doors, until we can't tell for sure what we are seeing, or whose POV it is anymore.
Altman once told me that he shot this movie using "a counter-moving camera." He explained that every time the action was just about to show you something you really wanted to know, the camera turned away.
The movie is delightfully wacky and anarchic. Mark Rydell's performance as the gangster, shocking in its day, probably doesn't have quite the punch it once did because it's been imitated so much.
But overall, this film is a broad and scathing comment on the state of society, and goes a good deal deeper than anything Chandler ever did. Truly not to be missed.
Brewster McCloud (1970)
Bizarre, Unique, wonderful
It's hard to talk about a film as unparalleled as Brewster McCloud. It creates its own world out of element from the world we know so well. It plays with everything, including its self-consciousness about being a movie. It weaves together many threads into a lovely, heart-breaking snapshot of a moment in America.
The situation: The world has gone mad. The wicked witch is wearing the Ruby slippers, and has become a beloved social icon. Who wouldn't want to fly away?
Enter Brewster McCloud, a young man who plans to do just that. He is hiding out in the basement of the Astrodome in Houston, working on building his wings. The kind you wear. Like Icarus did. His plan is all feeling, very focused, but doesn't take him past the immediate "How?" He is under the tutelage and protection of a sort of Bird-Goddess/Angel (played by Sally Kellerman) who walks around wearing absolutely nothing but a red plastic raincoat. When she takes it off, you can see the long, curving scars where her wings were removed. She also drives around in a small red car whose license-plate reads "BRDSHT".
Lest you think I've given away too much, let me assure you this barely scratches the surface. Who is responsible for the wave of mysterious murders? What of the presidential candidate who's all over town, is he an assassination target? What is the connection with the horny young girl (Shelly Duvall, in her first movie role - I believe she was discovered by Altman when he attended a party at her house during the location shoot in Houston) who comes to visit Brewster but can't ever really get his attention?
A wonderful, under-rated film worth seeing.
A masterwork. Hitch's answer to his numerous imitators.
When this film appeared in 1972, the term "Hitchcock" had become a sales tool loosely employed to advertise all sorts of grisly and shocking films. "Out Hitchcock's Hitchcock" appeared in the movie pages of the papers regularly every 6 months of so.
Hitchcock was also being widely studied as a great film artist at this time. The extensive interview-book, "Truffaut-Hitchcock" had laid bare most of Hitch's thoughts and patented interview-pronouncements on the art of suspense filmmaking.
Along comes Hitchcock and deliberately breaks almost every one of his major rules, and still manages to make a film three times as suspenseful as anything his imitators did.
There is violence in the film, but almost no blood. None of the murder victims are ever bloodied. I believe the only red stuff seen is on the hero, when he falls down a staircase. Contrast this with the bloodbaths then beginning to flood the screen (almost literally.)
The film is a black comedy of the highest order. In it, Hitchcock carries his much-noted doctrine of implicating the audience in the guilt to its greatest height. First, he commits one murder before your eyes in great detail, then takes you out into the street while the body is being discovered and you breathlessly, gleefully await the scream. And it does, finally arrive. Then, he allows you to follow the murderer and his next victim up a staircase, and while they disappear from view into a room, you back out of the building (in a great "how-did-they-shoot-this shot that's still debated among film students) waiting for the scream, and committing the murder in your own head. Hitch's mission is complete: you've done the crime for him.
Despite some extensive comic relief scenes involving the Police Inspector and his wife, the film is terrifically suspenseful and horribly funny at the same time.
Only a master could break all the rules and still come out on top.
Pleasure at Her Majesty's (1976)
Some excellent stuff here, some rare, and not all Python
It's been years since I saw this show, but some of it still rings in my memory.
It should be noted that this is a filmed record of a live performance, a benefit for Amnesty International, which became an annual festivity. (There are 2 other documentaries of later installments of this event, "The Secret Policeman's Ball" and "The Secret Policeman's Other Ball".) It was a gathering of most of the famous "Oxbridge" comedians, including several members of the "Beyond The Fringe" troupe of the early 60's (Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller), most of the Pythons, and such other comedy luminaries as Barry Humphries doing his Dame Edna Everedge character. It includes some behind-the-scenes footage (which is good) but it cuts short some of the performances (which, we hope, improves them, but we'll never know.)
Th Python material is mostly familiar, although a few things do happen in Live performance to vary the known script. But the real delight is the other stuff. Jonathan Miller's dry wit, and the late Peter Cook's absolutely devastatingly funny routines, "I Wanted to be a Judge" and "I've a Viper in this Box."
Overall, it is as full of good material as any single Python show ever was, perhaps more full. For a true Python fan, it represents a chance to see where the Pythons drew much of their style and inspiration from. For everyone else, it is an excellent chance to see some of the best British comedians of the 60's and 70's.
"I wanted to be a judge, but I didn't 'ave the Latin. You need a lot of latin to pass the judgin' exams. They're very rigorous. the judgin' exams are. People come staggerin' out, going 'Ow my Gawd, wha' a rigo'ous exam!" So I decided to become a miner instead. A coal miner. They're not near so rigorous, the coal miner's exams. They've only got one question, "What is your name?" And I scored 75%!"
The Phantom President (1932)
A rare and wonderful chance to see Geo. M. Cohan in action
If you saw Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, you've got the wrong idea. George M. Cohan was the smoothest song-and dance-man of them all, not the edgy fireball that Cagney portrayed. (No knock to Cagney; but he couldn't repress his natural energies) Watching Cohan, the original, is a delightful experience.
The plot is a fairly funny political satire. A politician with just what it takes to be president, but none of the "good American sex appeal" needed to get elected, finds an exact double: a medicine show charlatan. The medicine show man is hired to pinch hit for campaign purposes. His sidekick (Durante) comes along for the ride. They turn the medicine show into the convention. Durante does one of his famous "I won't talk on the radio" routines. It's, overall, light fare, but thoroughly enjoyable.
This film used to be shown on New York City local TV every four years on Election Night. Now, it seems to be virtually impossible to see. Too bad Universal (which owns the old Paramount films) doesn't dig it out of the vault and put it on Video.
Der Name der Rose (1986)
It doesn't get much better than this.
A murder mystery set in a medieval monastery, this film manages to be intriguing, amusing, thrilling and terrifying.
It was adapted from the first novel by the Italian semiotician Umberto Eco, a book concerned with the monopolization of knowledge. Eco approached this subject by concocting a series of mysterious deaths that occur in an isolated monastery, which eventually prove to revolve around a small coterie of disobedient monks who are partaking of a forbidden book. This leads to the discovery of the monastery's great secret, a vast hidden library where the knowledge of the ages is being allowed to rot away by authorities who hoard the books on the paternalistic justification that the knowledge they contain is too dangerous for ordinary people to possess. The library is a vast maze, and being lost in it is one of the novel's central episodes. (The maze theme, and particularly the library-as-maze, is one Eco shares with Jorge Luis Borges, and it feels here almost like the baton passed from one marathon-runner to the next.) It is a novel filled with the love of books themselves, and dressed in a stunning evocation of one of the bleakest periods in the intellectual history of the last 2000 years.
Jean Jacques Annaud's masterful adaptation of this book wisely retains some of the novel's elements, and transmutes others into terms far better suited to the medium of film. Annaud creates the milieu of the monastery, bleak, dank, claustrophobic, almost drained of life, brilliantly. (This film is the only way I'd ever want to visit a 13th century monastery.) The suppression of individualism that is part and parcel of this monastic life is the obvious outward expression of the mindset that would suppress the product of centuries of human thought and writing. Into it he brings William of Baskerville, excellently cast and wonderfully played by Sean Connery... a man who appears to be a monk solely because it is the only occupation in which he had the opportunity to study and exercise his mind. An obvious pre-cursor to Sherlock Holmes, William believes his eyes and ears, even when they contradict doctrine and the Official Line. He is brought in by the Abbott to explain deaths and quiet the rumors... before the impending visit of a notoriously ruthless official of the Inquisition. To the Abbott's great dismay, William dismisses an easy explanation and instead seeks to unravel the mystery. And coming ever closer is hovering threat of The Inquisition, which is eventually embodied on screen by the sinister F. Murray Abraham.
Where Annaud's film departs from the novel is in shifting the emphasis away from "the suppression of books" as the central theme. It remains a powerful symbol, but it is not required to stand on its own for the idea behind it. It is touched on in a wonderful scene where William first enters the library/maze and realizes what's hidden there, books he's heard legends of and longed to read his whole life, and he becomes totally giddy with the joy of this discovery. But the seduction of the maze, the high-point of the novel, is a distinctly literary effect, and Annaud and his writers shrewdly perceived that it would be rather flat on screen.
Instead, they center on the suppression of Free Thinking by the Inquisition, and the ruthless forms of terrorism employed to intimidate the "useful" minds into staying in their place, and thinking only what they are told. The human drama of the flames of the Inquisition "read" far more effectively on film than the intellectual drama of the imprisoned books, and that is driving force that makes the film, in its own medium, every bit as effective as the book.
In all, this film is an entertainment for the mind as well as the senses, filled with remarkable performances an indelible visions.